THE COGNAC COCKTAIL AS A FOLLOW UP TO THE DIGESTIVE
The area in which the Cognac grapes are planted is twice as large as the one around Reims and still the drink is less visible and less popular than Champagne. One day this was different and it seems like this time is coming back. Worldwide the demand for Cognac is rising. Not particularly in the pure form, but especially in cocktails. Currently about 80% of the Cognac industry is destined for mixing. Jeroen Kuypers interviewed Bob Bron, director of Moët Hennessy Nederland B.V., about the comeback of Cognac.
84.000 hectares wide is the area where the grapes are grown that are used as the base of the Cognac liquor. It roughly stretches from La Rochelle at the south Atlantic coast till Saint Aulaye at the edge of the Dordogne. The ground is chalky, like in the northern Champagne region. The centre of the area, around the city of Cognac, is also called ‘Grande Champagne’ and ‘Petite Champagne’. Like the big Champagne houses in Reims and Epernay buy a large part of the harvest of independent farmers, big Cognac houses like Martell, Hennessy and Courvoisier are big customers in this area. They dominate the international market and leave the niche for smaller houses. Sometimes there is even a larger company above it. Champagne producer Moët & Chandon fused with Cognac producer JAS Hennessy and later also with fashion company Louis Vuitton to LVHM. These days they constitute the biggest conglomerate of luxury products worldwide.
Why exactly this area decided to switch from wine to brandy in the twelfth century is uncertain. People think that the alcohol percentage in the wine was too low to preserve it for a longer time, so it went bad too fast. A sure thing is that foreign influences played a part in the decision making, especially the Dutch. They already bought their salt in this area and would like to get their wine there too. Brandy seemed to have a way longer shelf life and so it was better for trade. In a response to this the French landlords started installing boilers.
In the sixteenth century the Dutch traders got company from the Flemish Jenever distillers. These distillers were in general Calvinists. To avoid the Spanish fury that the duke of Alva had unleashed against the non-Catholics, they escaped towards the southwest of France, a protestant enclave. Their religious allies would put their stamp on the production of Cognac for many years. In the meantime not only the drink, but also the expertise became more and more refined. With not one but two distillates, the mixing of Cognacs and a maturing process that takes years, Cognac is everything but a simple drink.
“We have learned a lot about Cognac, but the drink still has its secrets for even the most experienced distiller”, says Bob Bron. “For example, it’s a big mystery why coper has such a positive influence on the vapours and why even the smallest dent in the alambique has an effect on the flavour. Good Cognac is the result of a long and complex process. Everything has to be right, from the wood of the barrels till the temperature and moistness of the storage rooms. You can’t learn this in just a few years. The Hennessy company has been ruled for over three centuries by the same family, of which now the 8th generation is leading the company. The blending master, who’s responsible for the composition of the Cognacs, is a craftsman in heart and soul.”
The wine farmers that took their residence in the Champagne area sell roughly half of their harvest to the big Champagne houses. The other half they use to make their own Champagne. These ‘home brands’ are mostly sold in France. In the Cognac areas farmers do not just sell half, but most of their harvest to foreign buyers. “A whopping 97.7% of all Cognac is meant for export.” says Bob Bron.
“The Dutch market share is about 60%. The countries that we export to most can be considered the biggest in the world. In this ranking the United States come first, closely followed by China, the United Kingdom and Ireland. That Ireland is so high on the ranking is without any doubt due to our Irish roots. Japan is on the 5th place, France on 6the 6th, Hong Kong on the 7th and The Netherlands on comes in 8th. It is surprising that a small country like ours consumes almost the same amount of Cognac as a market like Singapore.”
The division of the bottles that are shipped all over the world is not completely even, according to Bob Bron: “The Americans have a preference to VS quality: a blend in which the youngest Cognac is at least two and a half years old. In China and Singapore the VSOP, Very Superior Old Pale, is very popular. VSOP is at least four and a half years old.
The Cognac demand rises yearly with several percentages and it won’t be long before we can’t live up to it anymore. An additional problem is that Cognac from a superior quality – Napoleon and XO have to be at least six years old – has to mature longer and part of the drink evaporates during the process. Yearly that’s about two to two and a half percent. In jargon we call this the ‘angelic share’. The Cognac houses are facing a dilemma because of this: do we cater the increasing demand in VS quality or do we anticipate on the growing demand in VSOP in other markets?”
So spreading risks is the keyword here. It goes without saying that a multinational such as LVHM has better resources to do this than the smaller Cognac houses. The fear of not being able to cater to the demands is only one of the many problems the Cognac houses are dealing with. For many years the popularity of Cognac has been rising in Asia, though sometimes there is a dangerous twist in this upward trend.
“A couple of years ago there was a big anti-corruption campaign by the Chinese government. Many local and regional party leaders and civil servants were apparently easily influenced by business representatives. These men were invited to clubs or restaurants where the Cognac would flow abundantly all evening. Such a campaign does hurt your revenues. It’s only temporarily though. After a while the Cognac will inevitably be used more and more in the domestic atmosphere, because the flavour was so much appreciated at the club. Though you will never get back to that original level of income.”
Another trend that Cognac traders are confronted with is that of the changing laws about drinking and driving. What happened several decennia ago in Europe and America, will sooner or later also happen in Asian countries such as Thailand and Vietnam: local authorities will decide that drinking alcohol and driving only go together in very limited amounts. “Before the alcohol level in your blood was severely restricted, restaurant guests often drank a glass of Cognac with their coffee after the meal. That tradition of having a digestive made a strong downward turn. If you’re only allowed half a mille, you’re more likely to choose an aperitif and a glass of wine.”
The tradition of having a digestive after dinner didn’t exactly do the reputation of Cognac any good with the younger generations. It’s considered old fashioned. “Cognac was drank by older gentlemen that smoked thick cigars in Chesterfield fauteuils, preferably next to a crackling fire. This image is in no way ‘cool’. That added to the fact that every generation has the tendency to act different from the one before is not good.
Cognac is not the only drink that has suffered reputation damage. Jenever (Dutch Gin) as well as Sherry are in the same boat. The seventies ruined this last one when large retailers were overflowing the market with cheap sherry of bad quality. This stuff was consumed with gallons at a time. Sherry never really recovered from this, even though there are still some providers of high quality versions. Cognac as a digestive won’t return, though to be fair, we can’t really be bothered by that.
Over the last years Cognac has been reaching a younger target audience via a little detour. The broad glasses in which you pretty much drown when you put your nose in them are ‘out of fashion’. Cocktail glasses are ‘it’ these days. Hennessy stimulates this revolution by testing and promoting their very own cocktail recipes, like the five classics – soda, citrus, apple, berry and ginger. The Dutch have shown themselves especially willing to use Cognac as main ingredient in cocktails.
“The reason for this is in no way related to the historic bond with the region, but with Dutch colonial history,” says Bob Bron. “People from the Antilles have always been big fans of Cognac. For a long time a lot of American tourists have used Aruba and Curacao as a holiday destination. The bartenders started experimenting with the drink, to be able to serve their customers something different than just a glass of Cognac. Some of those bartenders moved to The Netherlands later and introduced the Cognac cocktail to their motherland. This is how it all started. Still you’ll mostly find Cognac cocktails in bars with a lot of influences from the Antilles.”
Cognac is a rich drink. Not only in flavour and aroma, but also in history. The larger brands already offer a wide range of variations, but who really wants to discover Cognac goes on a tour through the area. Stroll from village to village and from company to company while tasting the local drinks. This is another notable connection between Cognac and Champagne. For those who want to explore not only the depth of the drink, but also the broadness, the sheer variety, the cocktails are a really interesting angle. There are endless possibilities to create cocktails with Cognac as a main ingredient. Unlike Champagne, you don’t have a drink purely from France, but you get a drink that the Dutch have influenced from the start. The best Cognac has a pinch of Dutch and a touch of Antilles.
Going to give it a try? Check out our cocktail range!